The verdict in Michael Henderson’s attempted-murder trial was about to be announced in a Hennepin County courtroom, but he wasn’t waiting around to hear it.
The 26-year-old Richfield man bolted, fighting off deputies and fleeing down 16 flights of stairs to the street and a getaway car.
Like most defendants at courtroom hearings, Henderson, who was recaptured several hours later, hadn’t been required to wear handcuffs or other restraints at the September 2014 hearing. Neither was a man who screamed obscenities at a judge and broke a deputy’s finger on another recent occasion.
Such incidents have inspired an initiative from Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek that got a chilly welcome this week from some of the county’s 73 judges and court referees.
Come December, every defendant who couldn’t make bail and was thus jailed will be cuffed during pretrial courtroom hearings, provided the judge signs off. Handcuffs won’t be used during trials or for juveniles and people with disabilities. And defendants released from jail on bail won’t have to wear them because a judge has already determined they aren’t safety risks, Stanek said.
Many outstate counties already have such a practice, he said.
Currently, judges must sign off on a deputy’s request to restrain a defendant who acts up when escorted from jail to the courtroom or those with a history of disruptive behavior.
“In the 30 years I’ve been in the legal profession, there is always something that comes up in a courtroom every now and then,” said Chief Judge Pete Cahill. “We have to be smart and not overreact. I appreciate the sheriff’s safety concerns, but I think the status quo is working.”
More than 35,000 people, including 1,800 medical patients, pass through the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis for hearings each year. In-custody defendants are handcuffed when they leave jail and move through the courthouse, but the restraints are removed before they enter the courtroom.
In explaining the rationale behind his plan, Stanek ticked off a list of recent incidents. One defendant pounded on the podium in front of the judge, swore and tried to hit a deputy. Another tried to head-butt a deputy. A third ran into an area behind a courtroom where several judges and clerks have offices.
“These incidents almost always end with a hands-on outcome,” Stanek said. “We don’t need or want to go to that level.”
Deputies have always been permitted to restrain defendants during hearings, but have been reluctant to do so for all of them, Stanek said. Deputies have many duties during hearings and shouldn’t have to decide which defendants should be restrained, he said. And there isn’t always a deputy assigned to each of the county’s 91 courtrooms, including those in suburban locations.
Restraining defendants not only would protect judges, but attorneys, deputies, people in the gallery and other courtroom employees, Stanek said.
“Tempers can easily flare up because a defendant doesn’t like what the judge or attorney is saying,” he said. “And you have to remember that about one-third of the defendants are dealing with mental illness.”
Seeking a balance
Stanek has asked the judges and others connected to the county system to provide feedback on the restraint plan over the next month. Even with the changes, judges will have the final say on whether restraints are necessary. If a judge orders their removal, he or she must state a reason.
“The line of the judge’s authority is drawn at the courtroom door,” Cahill said. “We need to balance safety needs with the defendant’s presumption of innocence.”
Mary Moriarty, Hennepin County’s chief public defender, said she was surprised by Stanek’s directive because she isn’t aware of an increase in significant courtroom incidents. Her office handles 80 percent of felony defendants, many of whom are people of color, indigent and can’t make bail, she said.
“My hope is that judges understand implicit bias is everywhere in the courtroom,” she said. “There is a disproportionate number of people of color in the court system. Not only will they be standing in flip-flops and an orange jumpsuit in front of a judge making important decisions, they will be in handcuffs. It’s prejudicial and unfair.”
Defense attorney Ryan Pacyga said he agrees with Cahill that current rules for restraining defendants work well and believes that handcuffing them is over the top. “It won’t stop outbursts,” he said.
Cahill said he thinks there are more critical safety issues at hand. The chief judge said he worries about staffers who work outside the security screening area set up for courtrooms.
“But the sheriff does have a valid point — that you never know when somebody is going to lose control,” he said.
Stanek said he presumes judges will lean more often toward keeping restraints on defendants during hearings. He’s not surprised by the pushback, though.
“This is my logic,” he said. “The defendants are placed in handcuffs as they move from the jail to the courthouse. They are in jail because of the judge’s determination. If this is the case, why wouldn’t they want them to remain restrained during the hearing?”